Whoosh! Issue 13 - 
October 1997

IAXS Project #139
By Kathleen M. Cummings
Copyright © 1997 held by author
2749 words

Introduction (01-05)
The Interview (06-33)
     Joining the Xena Family (06-16)
     The Accident (17-18)
     Director's Duties (19-21)
     Approach to Fantasy (22-29)
     Directing Oneself (30-33)

An Interview With Charles Siebert

Yes! I can direct XENA...can you????

Charles Siebert, man of many skills.


[01] The words "Directed by Charles Siebert" have appeared at the beginning of numerous episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess over the past two seasons. These include episodes as diverse as the heartbreaking ORPHAN OF WAR (#25) and the hysterical COMEDY OF EROS (#46). Indeed Siebert, himself, has appeared as Sisyphus in TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (#32) and as the voice of the god, Poseidon, in ULYSSES (#43) and LOST MARINER (#45). But fans of the show may not be aware of just how much talent, expertise and experience that Siebert has brought to Xena.

[02] Charles Siebert was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and was a graduate of Marquette University and the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Arts where he studied and taught for two years. He returned to New York, and for the next 12 years worked virtually non-stop. During the day he appeared in many of TV's leading soap operas, including Another World (1964- ), As The World Turns (1956- ), One Life To Live (1968- ), etc., leaving his evenings free for theater. He made his Broadway debut in Murray Shisgal's Jimmy Shine with Dustin Hoffman in 1968, and appeared in productions of Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady, Colette, The Changing Room and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, to mention a few. He also performed at many of the nation's most prestigious regional theaters, including ACT in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, the Goodman Theater in Chicago, Baltimore's Center Stage, The American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, and the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts. Yet, in-between all that he managed to slip in some work in films such as Coma (Michael Crichton, 1978), And Justice For All (Norman Jewison, 1979), and The Other Side Of Midnight (Charles Jarrott, 1977), among others.

[03] Making the transition to Los Angeles in 1976, he jumped into the world of episodic TV, guest-staring on nearly every top-rated series. In between filming series pilots, including Joan Rivers' Husbands, Wives & Lovers (1978), he appeared on All In The Family (1971- 1979), Rhoda (1974-1978), Barnaby Jones (1973-1980), One Day At A Time (1975-1984) (a recurring role, Mr. Davenport, 1976-1979), Maude (1972-1978), Kojak (1973- 1978), Harry-O (1974-1976), The Rockford Files (1974- 1980), and Hawk (1989). He portrayed Helen Keller's father in the television production of William Gibson's award-winning The Miracle Worker (Paul Aaron, 1979) with Melissa Gilbert and Patty Duke. Just after his second anniversary in LA he filmed his third pilot, Trapper John MD (1979-1986).

[04] The seven seasons of Trapper John gave Charles Siebert many things: recognition as the lovable jerk Dr. Stanley Riverside II, a certain security for his family, and something he had always wanted, a chance to direct. During the run of the series he directed almost a dozen episodes, and then went on to direct and co-star in Mancuso FBI (1989-1990). He spent the next ten years alternating between directing episodes of Knot'S Landing (1979-1993), Palace Guard (1991), Lifestories (1990), Jack'S Place (1992), Vanishing Son (1995-), and appearing in shows such as Murder She Wrote (1984-1996) and Matlock (1986-1995) along with TV movies staring Victoria Principal and Paul Sorvino. His current directing credits include numerous episodes of Silk Stalkings (1991-), Pacific Blue (1995-), Renegade (1992-) and an episode of NBC's show, The Pretender (1996), and of course, Hercules: The Incredible Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.

[05] This interview was taped by Mr. Siebert, in reply to the questions submitted to him by Ms. Cummings.

The Interview

Joining the Xena Family

[06] I am in Auckland right now on June 8th, 1997. I am in the middle of shooting an episode, it is called GABRIELLE'S HOPE. I have shot one day and tomorrow I pick up again with the 2th through 8th day. It is an overcast day in Auckland, as it so often is. Something you probably see on the show quite a bit. Very cloudy skies very often.

[07] How did you originally become involved in Xena?

[08] The conventional way of just being suggested by my directing agent, or rather, submitted by my directing agent, that is what I should say. It happens that one of the executives at MCA-Universal is someone I have worked with before and knew my work. He may have helped to give it an extra little nudge. That is how I got the first couple of assignments.

Xena...you're crushing my hand. Xena?

Ares tries to tempt Xena to the 'dark side" in THE RECKONING (#06).

[09] The first episode that I directed was THE RECKONING (#06) and I came down that time. I think it was close to two years ago, maybe even more than two years ago. I did THE RECKONING (#06) and DEATH IN CHAINS (#09) that first trip down here.

[10] What are the challenges and rewards of working in New Zealand, off the Hollywood beaten track?

[11] Personally and frankly, there are not many them [rewards] because it is a long way from home. I have a lovely home and a lovely wife and a terrific family and I miss them all. I spend a lot of time down here so I am very, very far away from my family and that is on the personal side.

[12] On the professional side it is an interesting place to shoot because the terrain, the topography, and the flora are untypical of what we have in the states. Which helps to give the show its look. It has a prehistoric look to it, and that helps to emphasize the mythological setting that these stories take place in. Again, there is the challenge that sometimes there is not the equipment down here that there might be [if we were in the US or Canada] because this [New Zealand] is a small country and they do not have absolutely everything that we have. If they do not have it, we may or may not be able to get it. If we can get it, it will probably take some time. So, there is often a time lag when you are trying to get a hold of stuff.

[13] One of the challenges for me is understanding the Kiwi language. Which as Winston Churchill said about us and the English, but I think it is true of us and the New Zealanders too, that we are a people separated by a common language. I have trouble understanding the Kiwi dialect or accent sometimes. Though I have gotten much more used to it, it seems I still spend half my conversation saying, "What? What?" and asking people to repeat stuff.

[14] The rewards are that the people are very good down here. The very, very obvious rewards are a tremendous production design team. Ngila Dickson , the costume designer, and Rob Gillies, the production designer, are just great. They are highly talented, imaginative, creative, and inventive people. They are wonderful to work with and are always cooperative and helpful. Peter Bell is the stunt coordinator. Same for him; he is a world-class stunt coordinator. He does wonderful stuff and is always extremely helpful and cooperative. The rest of the crew as well. Donnie Duncan, the director of photography, and his crew are very, very hard workers. Everybody is very, very creative and inventive, and all help to make both of these shows very good shows.

[15] How does the production accommodate its out-of-towners? By grouping the episodes, etc.?

[16] They give us a nice place to live and cars to drive. Somebody here named Jane Lindsay, who is sort of a liaison between the company and talent, is in charge. She is always just spectacularly helpful in everything she does. She and her assistant, Edith.

The Accident

You watch for warlords, I'll watch for

TEN LITTLE WARLORDS was "Lucy Free" due to her accident.

[17] How did Lucy Lawless' unfortunate accident affect your directing schedule?

[18] Lucy's accident actually happened while I was prepping to direct a show down here. The immediate effect of it was that we were delayed by several days while we tried to figure out what to do. First of all they told me that I would be going home, that we would not be doing the shows at all, and that they would be shutting [production] down. Then within a very brief time we decided, no, let's wait and see how serious the damage was and then decide what to do about that. Then they decided that what they would be doing is rewriting episodes so I would have to hang around for a few days. I hung around a few days and what happened was we put Xena in Callisto's body in TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (#32). So that had a direct effect on what I was going to be doing because then I would be working with Hudson Leick instead of Lucy. Which was a great pleasure, working with Hudson that is, and it actually was quite an interesting episode. I think it turned out pretty well.

Director's Duties

[19] What are the responsibilities of a director for each episode beside the obvious action/cut?

[20] The director is responsible for everything that appears on the screen ultimately. So that the entire pre-production period is spent in meetings and conferences with all the various departments establishing and planning what is going to be done. Whether it be costumes, sets, animals, stunts, or photography, the choices are largely the director's or are, in any case, decided in consultation with the director. When the director gets on set every day about 100 people start asking about 300 questions that he has to have some answer to even if he does not know the answer.

[21] Then once the show is shot, of course, I am responsible for editing the show. Turning in a 'cut' which is called a 'director's cut' of a show as I think it should be put together. Then it is out of my hands and then the producers take over and essentially they can do whatever they want, but up until then I have a lot of involvement, a lot of input, and a lot of responsibility.

Approach to Fantasy

[22] Xena and Hercules, though action-adventure oriented, are also fantasies. Do you find that you approach your work differently with them than your other, more mainstream work?

[23] Visually you do, certainly. Obviously there many things that are done on these shows that are not done on other shows. There can be fantastic characters. There can be fantastic places -- over boiling pits of lava or with harpies diving out and attacking the characters. Or dragons, or Echidnas or all sorts of stuff. So that is obviously very different. The shows also, however, do take an anachronistic tone where the dialogue is contemporary and is even colloquial or idiomatic which sometimes gives it a lot of the humor. So as far as directing the actors is concerned, I do not think there is any particular difference. The differences are really more involved in the visual, especially in terms of the special effects.

[24] How does one direct a character who is not there, i.e., CGI [computer generated image] and SFX [special effects].

[25] That usually is not much of my responsibility. The CGI usually happens apart from me. After, again, consultations and meetings and discussions as to what it is going to be. We ordinarily have story boards which will help us to envision where the characters are going to be. That helps the actors, the director, and the photographer to know where the effect will be and what they are going to be doing. In some ways it is not as interesting and it is a little more tedious than it is working with the actors. My favorite thing to do is work with the actors. Having been an actor for a long time, that is what I know best. That is what I feel most. It is what I like to do most. I think it is my chief value as a director. The other stuff is interesting but it is not as engaging as far as I am concerned.

But I waxed YESTERDAY!!

Hudson Leick got a bruise or two while filming TEN LITTLE WARLORDS.

[26] In the many well choreographed fight scenes, how do the roles of director and stunt co-ordinator interact?

[27] In the fight scenes the director and the stunt coordinator work closely together. Largely the director gets the characters into the fight, the stunt coordinator takes over from there, and the director gets them out of the fight. For example, we are doing a big fight tomorrow with banshees in a forest and I have been working with the stunt coordinator quite a bit discussing how we are going to be doing that. He will be on the set tomorrow and we will work closely together. He will show me what he has designed. I will decide where the cameras go, along with the director of photography, and where the cuts should be made ... and that is how we interact. On this show, again as I say, Peter Bell is such a terrific stunt coordinator that the interaction is very satisfying.

[28] It was a unique opportunity to direct two very different actresses playing the same character. In what ways did this challenge you as a director?

[29] As far as directing both Hudson and Lucy as Xena, the challenge was to keep watching Hudson and making sure she was acting as Xena, not as Callisto. I think that was a challenge for her. I think she found it difficult and I think she found it in some ways constraining. She could not necessarily rely on her instincts on how she would perform in a particular situation in the moment. The challenge was in continuing to help Hudson to pull that out of herself and to meet the challenge.

Directing Oneself

What I really want to do is direct. Oh.

Charles Siebert as Sisyphus.

[30] Not only did you direct TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (#32), but you also appeared as Sisyphus in it. What are the technical aspects of directing yourself.

[31] As far as directing myself in TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (#32), well, (laughter) I find by now acting in something I am directing a terrific intrusion, and a terrific distraction. Directing is so much more absorbing and involving that the acting is just a pain in the neck when all of a sudden you have to run to make-up to get touched up instead of staying on the set and working out a particular shot. It is not something I like so much any more. I used to find it easier but the more I direct and the better I get as a director the less interested I am in the acting.

[32] What reasons prompted you to move from in front of the camera to behind it? Was it artistic, practical, or both?

[33] I had always been interested directing and I had also thought I would be a director. I developed a career as an actor which was pretty good and then wound up raising and supporting a family. Probably did not have the nerve to just drop the acting for a long time in order to try to pursue the directing. I went where the acting took me for some time and eventually it took me to an opportunity where I could direct, which was on Trapper John, M.D. I started directing there and began to develop an understanding of what that entailed. That was good. Then I wanted to further develop the directing career. It was difficult and it took some time because people thought of me as an actor. So it took me probably about 10 years to make the transition completely. But now I have. Other reasons was that is just where I wanted to be anyway. It is also true in Hollywood there is not that much work for an actor my age. You look at the television screen you will not see many people my age on the screen anymore. So there is a lot less work for me as an actor. It is very gratifying that at this point in my career I can make this shift to directing and have it work and have it work pretty well.

Gosh...I love Whoosh!

One more studio shot of Charles Siebert for the road.

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